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  • Author’s Response
  • Samuel Moyn (bio)

This forum is exciting because it brings labor movements and labor rights to the very center of how people can start to think about the past and the future of human rights movements in general — and raises the contentious question of whether ideologues and organizers for workers ought to suspect that human rights are “not enough” for their broader ambitions and ends.

I want to begin with deep gratitude to my commentators for taking their time to engage with my recent book and to write up such captivating and forceful responses. And, of course, I owe a lot to the editors of Labor and the organizers of the annual book symposium for imagining the forum in the first place, and for seeing it into print. No intellectual work is definitive, and I have always seen the point of my writing to be conversational, and therefore for my provisional answers to be superseded by other and more persuasive ones — so I will focus in what follows on those aspects of the discussion that, in my view, most deserve to be continued.

Start with the proposition that never, to the best of my knowledge, did labor advocates anywhere present themselves mainly (let alone solely) as rights or human rights movements, in part because so many of its members were painfully aware from the earliest days that such political languages were already owned and operated by capital. Simultaneously, as I argue in Not Enough, the labor movement proposed new rights in the course of its struggle, not only the rights to work and strike, but also many of the rights that would eventually become welfare rights in the twentieth century. By the mid-twentieth century, for this same reason, all labor movements were open to the language of human rights, while keeping their reserve given whom assertions of rights had served so far. The American Federation of Labor and its international allies participated fully in the negotiations over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), as I narrate, and the workers’ state of the Soviet Union did too; yet for all their bitter differences, neither defined its mission principally in terms of human rights.

This is what monumental historian of labor in modern history Eric Hobsbawm meant when he remarked, when summoned after Jimmy Carter made “human rights” famous to explain how his topic fit, that the place of the workers [End Page 123] movement in human rights history is a “paradox.” “More than any other force,” he explained, “the labour movement helped to unlock the politico-legal, individualist straitjacket which confined human rights. . . . If the UN [Universal] Declaration [of Human Rights of 1948] includes economic, social, and educational rights . . . it is primarily due to the historical intervention of labour movements. At the same time labour movements demonstrate the limitations of a ‘human rights’ approach to politics.”1 I think Hobsbawm’s comments at the dawn of the age of human rights basically stand several decades on.

Joseph McCartin contends that, despite my intermittent coverage, I gave labor rights per se short shrift in my book. It is clearly a fair point, even for a synthetic book ultimately more interested in labor activism as merely one dimension of the welfare settlement of the mid-twentieth century and its passing. In my judgment, the right to work and the right to strike, both of whose origins I try to cover in the nineteenth century but mention too little in the twentieth and twenty-first, are indeed quite distinctive within the broader framework of rights. After all, their main purpose is empowerment of workers. Of course, workers may try to use their power to gain distributional perquisites, whether for the sake of sufficient provision or class equalization, but neither has ever been their fundamental purpose. As McCartin says, it follows that any attack on neoliberalism would have to put labor at or near the center, even if part of the point were to rebuild the constituency for a welfare state or welfare world. I would simply add that what historians like McCartin and me should never forget is that labor power’s height occurred in and through national...